Sunday December 18th, 2011

Tony Romo was hot in the first half, throwing scoring passes to three receivers. (Brian Blanco/AP)

Consider this step one for the Cowboys.

Pushed to the brink by back-to-back meltdowns against the Cardinals and Giants, Dallas needed a win Saturday night in Tampa Bay, followed by another victory in Week 16 against Philadelphia, to ensure that its Jan. 1 rematch with the New Yorkers would hold playoff significance.

It wasn't always pretty -- the Cowboys struggled to finish the reeling Bucs off after jumping out to a 28-0 halftime lead -- but Dallas avoided a colossal collapse in a 31-15 win. In the disappointing NFC East, that's all it took to keep the 'Boys in the hunt.

The scenario is pretty simple now: Beat the Eagles, beat the Giants, win the division.

Completing the task may be easier said than done, though if the Cowboys can harness their first-half effort, the sky's the limit. They put 14 on the board in the first quarter, then repeated the feat in the second, with Tony Romo hitting Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson for touchdowns.

The shellacking was so thorough that, at one point, the Cowboys had 19 first downs to Tampa Bay's one.

To no one's surprise, Dallas hit the wall a bit -- Tampa Bay's Dekoda Watston scooped a Romo fumble and took it to the house on the first possession of the second half, and the Bucs' offense finally awoke a few minutes later on a long touchdown drive.

But unlike those losses in Weeks 13 and 14, Dallas slammed the door in the fourth quarter. Now it's the Giants' turn. New York needs only win one of its final two games (vs. Washington, at the Jets) to play a home game for the division crown in Week 17.

You kind of get the sense that that's where the NFC East race is headed ... and maybe where it deserves to be.

Philadelphia's implosion has been well-documented, and the Redskins again bottomed out after a promising start. Dallas and New York, for all their flaws, have weathered the storm. Last week's Giants win, a come-from-behind 37-34 classic, had a serious playoff feel to it.

Some of that had to due with both the Giants and Cowboys being equal parts potential and mind-numbing frustration.

We saw that from Dallas again. Even if this one was never really in doubt -- and even as Tampa Bay crossed midfield down 16 in the fourth quarter, it wasn't, unless you're a pessimistic Cowboys fan -- Dallas did just enough to make you wring your hands together and sigh in frustration.

The Romo fumble alone, with the Cowboys up 28 and en route to clearing the bench in the fourth quarter, was enough to raise a red flag or two. Romo and Miles Austin also appeared to have a miscommunication on a third-down play during Dallas' next drive, which forced a field goal.

There's enough talent in Big D for this team to hang with the NFL's best, when it's clicking. But there's the rub: How often has this Dallas team clicked for an entire game, let alone a stretch of two or three weeks?

The Cowboys have an impressive win over San Francisco under their belts, as well as blowout triumphs over St. Louis and Buffalo. Just as often, though, they've done just enough to lose -- like in a Week 4 choke job vs. Detroit and a heartbreaker in New England two weeks later.

It's Week 15 of the NFL season, and you could argue that we still have not seen the full scope of what Dallas is capable of doing.

Of course, that's what made Saturday's win so important, even if it was loss No. 8 in a row for the Bucs. If the Cowboys can just get past Philadelphia next week, in a home game, they'll get another crack at the Giants.

With that would come one more opportunity to prove to the NFL world that this Dallas team is one to be taken seriously. Everyone's still waiting for some grand proof that the Cowboys are a legitimate NFC contender. They took the first step toward providing that confirmation Saturday. The rest of the journey will be even harder.

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